Maybe you circled it on the calendar or set up a smartphone alert.
Then injuries shut down a highly anticipated showdown between two of the Kia MVP favorites in LeBron James and Joel Embiid. Both stars sat Thursday as Philadelphia beat the Los Angeles Lakers 109-101.
Not to take away from Danny Green’s big night, but we sure could’ve used another dose of the drama that unfolded on Jan. 27 — the last time these teams met with their MVP candidates on the floor — because they won’t face each other again for the rest of the regular season.
The Kia Race to the MVP Ladder opens up quite a bit with the injuries to James and Embiid. Players such as Nikola Jokic continue to perform as he’s dropped a triple-double in three of his last five games to retain the top spot. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo inched up a slot, too, having led his team to a record of 13-1 since Feb. 19. — a stretch that including eight consecutive victories. James Harden continues to dazzle as the do-it-all player carrying Brooklyn to a record of 8-2 this month.
“There’s gonna be times they’re gonna talk about us, there’s gonna be times they’re not gonna talk about us, but personally, I just like being under the radar,” Antetokounmpo said Saturday after scoring 26 points to go with 15 assists in a win over the San Antonio Spurs.
So much for that.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.5 apg, 1.6 spg
Produced triple-double No. 12 of the season on Tuesday in helping Denver take its fourth victory in the last six games, and the front office brought aboard reinforcements before Thursday’s trade deadline, acquiring Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee in anticipation of the Nuggets’ playoff run. Denver heads into what should be a fun matchup tonight against New Orleans Pelicans sitting at fifth in the West. Given all the talent on the roster the team should be higher in the standings, but Jokic is doing his part, starting every game for Denver over the last three seasons.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Season stats: 28.6 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 6.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.3 bpg
Antetokounmpo sat out of Milwaukee’s win over Indiana on Monday. However, he’s played in 41 of the Bucks’ 43 outings, helping the squad to a record of 13-1 since Feb. 19 — including eight consecutive wins. Quietly creeping up the ranks in the Kia MVP conversation, Antetokounmpo prefers that Milwaukee flies “under the radar.” But that’s becoming increasingly difficult given the way two-time Kia MVP and the Bucks are playing. In March, Antetokounmpo has averaged nearly a triple-double (26.5 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.6 assists) while shooting 57.8% from the field.
3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Season stats: 30.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.7 apg
The NBA’s second-leading scorer, Lillard drained three free throws with only one second left Thursday night to help Portland pull off another comeback victory in a game that featured 24 lead changes, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Lillard routinely strokes contested long-range jumpers like this one as if they’re nothing. It’s quite telling that the Trail Blazers are 7-11 when Lillard pours in fewer than 30 points. A six-time All-Star, Lillard continues to gut his way through a couple of nagging injuries, leading the Blazers to wins in four of their last six games as Thursday’s victory snapped a two-game skid.
4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Season stats: 25.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.9 apg, 1.0 spg
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Thursday that James received a projected timeline of four to six weeks for recovery from the right ankle sprain that knocked him out of the team’s March 20 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Two teams — Denver and Portland — are breathing down the Lakers’ neck in the Western Conference standings. They started off the season 21-7 and are 7-10 since Anthony Davis suffered his calf injury. The favorite to win the Kia MVP just weeks ago, James has now missed three consecutive games.
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Season stats: 29.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.4 bpg, 1.2 spg
We’re now up to seven straight games missed for Embiid, who is out with a bone bruise in his left knee. Yet somehow, the 76ers continue to find ways to win. Earlier in the season, Philadelphia was 0-4 in games Embiid missed. They’ve since won eight of the last 10 games that Embiid has sat out, including six of seven since the big man suffered his latest injury setback. Embiid’s timetable for return remains uncertain, and the expectation is the 76ers will reevaluate him in the next day or two.
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The Next Five:
6. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
8. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
9. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
10. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
And five more: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz.
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